The State of the Art at d3t: Louise Andrew on the growth of art services at d3t and Coconut Lizard

Established in 2011 to “design, develop and deliver technology”, Cheshire’s d3t has become an important co-developer within the Keywords group since being acquired six years ago. Richie Shoemaker spoke to Louise Andrew, the head of art at d3t and Coconut Lizard, about the growth of art services within the closely-aligned – and award-winning – studios.

What’s your background?

I’ve been in the industry for just over 20 years. I worked at Acclaim Studios in Manchester and then worked for a small indie company called Embryonic Studios that was about 13 people. Then that got bought and became part of TT games. I was there for quite a long time and by the time I left we were nearly 400 people. I’ve been at d3t for exactly three years.

d3t was initially created as an engineering outfit. How did art enter the mix?

For the first few years there were no artists and by the time I joined they were a very small team of generalists. The team is probably three or four times bigger now and we have something like 11 different specialisms within the art team, including animation, tech animation, tech art, VFX, lighting, concept art, character art, UI, and environments. People feel like they can really develop and be an expert in their own right across all these different disciplines.

D3t in Runcorn and Gateshead-based Coconut Lizard work very closely, but in what ways are they connected and how are they distinct from one another?

Coconut lizard was bought two years ago and the head of the studio then retired. The studio was about 32 people – a size that we could bring in as part of our studio. So we spent a lot of time visiting and getting to know the team. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t bulldoze them and or feel like they lost their identity in any way. Obviously they still have the name. They still have a lot of their own social events, but we also want them to feel very much welcome and part of everything that d3t has going on as well.

We have I think ten fully-remote artists on the team now from all over the UK, so actually having people in Gateshead and in Runcorn amongst all that … there’s so much remote working that it blurs the lines as to whether somebody is officially part of d3t or a part of Coconut Lizard. We have artists from both studios working on the same projects together, so, day to day, you’re all part of the same art team or the same cross-discipline team, with programmers, designers, animators; everybody all working together.

How do you see your role more widely within the Keywords Studios group?

I work a lot with the other art directors across Keywords, particularly in the UK. Climax, Electric Square and Studio Gobo – I know the art directors there and we chat quite regularly. We also discuss working together, where, if we’ve got some spare artists or they desperately need, say, a VFX Artist and we’ve got somebody available, we can facilitate sharing.

We’re all sister studios, which I think in the games industry is quite unusual because an awful lot of the time other games companies can feel a bit like rivals, whereas within Keywords it doesn’t feel like that at all. I was lucky enough to go to GDC and XDS last year and I got to meet loads of other Keywords people and that was fantastic. So, yeah, it’s nice feeling being part of that bigger network, particularly within the Create service line, which is what games development is part of. Keywords CEO Bertrand Bodson speaks proudly about the entrepreneurial spirit across each studio in the group.

How does that manifest itself in your role?

Each studio definitely has its own identity. If you spend time in each studio, they have different vibes and are different in how they work. d3t and Coconut Lizard definitely has its own culture and we are given, within reason, our own freedom to develop the culture that we want to create and choose the projects we think are the right fit for us. I mean, we’re particularly interested in co-development work, where we take ownership of features of games and that kind of thing.

Different Keywords games studios, or parts of the creative service line, do have different things they’d rather be doing. We’re not all looking for exactly the same kind of work. And that works really well, because sometimes it might be that another studio says it’s not actually interested in a project, but maybe it’ll be right for d3t. So, we speak to different clients. We look at all the opportunities available. I think we’ve got eight different games in the studio at the moment and we’re able to pick the ones that we think will really suit the team and that they will feel creatively engaged by, excited about the IP, and feel like the actual work that they’re doing will feel creatively satisfying.

Last year you won an award for being one of the best places to work.

We’ve actually earned Best Places to Work every year. We’ve entered it five times and we’ve won it every single time! We’re very proud of that. And Best Creative Provider as well at the Develop Star Awards in the summer.

You were nominated Best Boss. Do you have a trophy cabinet somewhere?

We do! We have a big trophy cabinet. I think the Best Places to Work award is amazing because it’s voted for by the staff and the whole purpose of it is to celebrate what games companies are doing well and celebrate the studios that are doing all the right things in terms of diversity and culture and training.

We feel really, really proud about the fact that people love working for d3t and really see their future here. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we spend a lot of time thinking about career progression and giving very clear paths about career progression. We’ve got very specific job descriptions, a lot of transparency about each role: What is a senior artist; what is required of a lead artist; what you need to do to make that step and how do we see your future. Also, people can choose which specialism they want in which role they want to go into. They could choose whether they want to go down the line management training route, the nurturing people route, or whether they want to be more like principals.

When I interview people, I talk about the fact that no one ever wants to leave the art team, and that we can provide for whatever you want your career to be. You get everything in one studio, because you get all the projects, you’ve got all the opportunities to work on all these different IPs, different genres and different kinds of games. And if people feel that they’re progressing, learning and getting the experience, and they’re nurtured and supported then why would you leave? In terms of my award, that was amazing. It was a total shock and I cried when I heard I had been shortlisted in the top six. That was probably the highlight of my year!

How is the studio developing and aiming to grow?

You know, as a service provider, you can sometimes feel you’re just being given work and sending it out and you don’t have that ownership. You don’t feel creative, like when it’s your work, but that’s not how it feels here. We talk about getting that ownership and I think co-development gives you that because you feel like you’ve made decisions and you’re part of the actual bigger picture, even though it’s not your game. At the end of the day, you’re helping someone else make their game. I feel that working for a service provider like Keywords attracts the kind of people who are maybe not as egotistical …it’s actually the people who want to help, want to serve other people, want games to be as good as they can be and they want to be part of that journey. A lack of ego, but obviously you’re very proud of the work you create.

What are you most pleased with, as a studio, that you’ve worked on in the last few years?

Art wise, I’d say that doing Alan Wake Remastered was the biggest thing. The art team [then] was very small, and we felt like we were showing the world the kind of art we could do. There’s been work we’ve done since then, but it’s all pre production, so we can’t talk about any of it. I actually think in the last 12 months, the art team has come on leaps and bounds and the work that it’s producing right now is the best – just doing beautiful, beautiful artwork. We can’t wait really to show people what we’re working on.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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